Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Christianity, Part 1

Our Region—Like Our Nation—Remains Predominantly Christian. But What Exactly Does That Mean To The Religion’s Various Adherents?

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Little Piney Grove Baptist Church, Virginia Beach, Creeds
Little Piney Grove Baptist Church

Having talked with people whose outlooks and religious experiences are similar to mine, I wanted to venture far beyond my own comfort zone.

With this in mind, I head out one Sunday in July to visit Little Piney Grove Baptist Church in Creeds, a rural area of Virginia Beach, just south of Pungo.

Unlike the imposing neo-Gothic façade of Christ and St. Luke’s, whose stately tower looms majestically over the Hague in Ghent, Little Piney Grove is a modest structure—and yet, its historical significance for Virginia Beach’s black residents is profound.

“During the days prior to the Civil War,” states the church’s website, “our forefathers worshipped at the churches of their white masters. Consequently, many of our churches that exist today grew and developed from the efforts of a persistent group of black worshippers. They had a desire to worship and praise God, freely, in their own sanctuary. They dreamed of a day when they would not be limited to the designated “Black Only” section of the churches of their masters.

“Our neighboring brothers and sisters in Christ from Oak Grove Baptist Church, formerly Pungo Baptist Church, have written within their recorded history the story of our ancestors who were members there. But, those faithful parishioners ‘formed for themselves a church, Little Piney Grove Baptist Church in the 1850s.’”

The original worshippers assembled under a tent near the site of the current building, according to the website, but eventually managed to raise a permanent structure.

I’d called in advance and left a voicemail message but hadn’t received a response, so I had no idea what kind of greeting to expect when I arrived. As it turns out, I’m welcomed with open arms by a man who said he’d passed my message along to the pastor, who would arrive shortly.

He invites me to join the Sunday school class currently in session, and I’m greeted warmly there as well. Then, at 11 a.m., we all file into the sanctuary for the formal service.

I’d been to black Baptist churches before but not in many years. I’m immediately struck by how vastly different the style of worship music is in contrast to the organ-driven hymns to which I’m accustomed. Here, an electric trio consisting of keyboard, bass guitar and drums takes the lead, accompanying the exuberant, hand-clapping choir. The keyboard player continues with a bed of sound, even while various parishioners stand up to lead prayers without relying on texts.

Indeed, everything about the service seems to be characterized by spontaneity, albeit within an established outline in the program, much as jazz musicians leave ample room for improvisation over an agreed upon series of chords. In largely white Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, there is a call-and-response element—the priest or minister trading lines with the congregation—but it is all strictly scripted. Here, the script is loose, to say the least. While some of the congregational responses are prescribed, parishioners also call out whatever comes to mind: “Praise the Lord”; “Hallelujah,” or simply, “Yes!” or “Uh huh.”

All of this is building up to the climax of the service—a sermon by the Rev. Rashad Cartwright, an engaging 33-year-old who became pastor of Little Piney Grove in April 2016.

Minister Shanae C. Moore, Rev. Rashad Cartwright, Little Piney Grove Baptist Church, Virginia Beach
Minister Shanae C. Moore and fiancée Rashad Cartwright

During a conversation in his office, Cartwright tells me that as a child he was immersed in the Baptist church. His uncle was a pastor, he added, and both his father and mother were deacons.

“I was in church six or seven days a week,” he remembers.

Like a lot of people, he briefly rebelled.

As a teenager, he recalls, he “couldn’t wait to go off to college and get away” from all that. “But God,” he added, “has a way of humbling you—of showing you that the world of fun is not the answer.”

This realization came in a single moment of epiphany that he remembers vividly. 

“I was 16 years old and attending a [religious] conference in Lynchburg.  The service one night had been especially powerful, and I was so filled with emotion that I had trouble falling asleep. I finally did, but in the middle of the night, I woke up because I heard something in the kitchen. I remember the exact time: It was 3:27 a.m. I walked in to see what it was and I saw this bright light. It wasn’t the figure of a man—just a light. I dropped to my knees and cried like a baby. When I finally stopped, I had a feeling of peace wash over me. I knew from that moment on that that was God’s calling to me—it was time to preach the Word.”

When he told his pastor about this revelation, the pastor told him he was a little too young and should just be patient. Three years later, however, the pastor invited Cartwright to preach a sermon.

The experience reinforced his sense of calling. “I had some notes,” he recalls, “but I never looked at them. God had deposited that sermon within me.”

This conviction is evident as well as he delivers the sermon on the Sunday that I attend. Indeed, I can say, without hesitation, that Cartwright is one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard in my life.

He began his sermon in a light-hearted manner, talking about the proper way to make a pound cake. A good baker can tell simply by looking into the oven window when the cake is done, he says. No one seems to know where this is going, but it doesn’t matter. His charisma, charm and good humor captivated the congregation.

Then, as his voice rises in pitch and deepens in intensity, he reaches his main point.

“Listen!,” he says, with the excitement of someone who has just discovered his faith in that moment. “Can I tell you about God?! Sometimes God puts us in the oven of life. But He knows when to take us out!”

The only proper response as we endure hardships, he continues, is to pray and trust in God. Prayer works, he says with utter conviction. To illustrate his point, he talks about the story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish and finally gaining his release through prayer.

The choice of subject matter seems strikingly appropriate, in light of a conversation I’d had before the service with a 59-year-old woman named Victoria Bell, a lifelong member of Little Piney Grove.

Like everyone else I encounter there, her faith is rock solid.

Victoria Bell, Little Piney Grove Baptist Church, Creeds, Virginia Beach
Victoria Bell

“I love God,” she says. “I couldn’t make it without Him. I know He hears our prayers, and I know He answers them.”

As evidence she points to an especially difficult time in her life when her son went to jail.

“He was always getting in trouble,” she recalls, “and I kept trying to fix it. I paid the lawyers so much money. Finally I reached my wits’ end and told God, ‘I can’t do this anymore. He said, ‘I was wondering how long it was going to take you to let him go.’ I was a single mom with three children, and I needed to focus on the ones who were still in the household. I continued to love my son, and told him that. But I felt as if I were in jail with him, in a sense. When I told him that I wasn’t in jail with him any longer—that he made his choice and needed to live with it—he grew fearful.

“I was glad he was locked up because at least I knew where he was.”

The comment is a remarkable foreshadowing of Cartwright’s sermon, in which he makes the point that Jonah’s being swallowed by the fish wasn’t punishment but protection.

“Once I let it go,” Bell recalls, “God took over. My son got out of jail two years ago, and he’s doing good. He has a job and is paying his child support and doing all the right things. I told him, ‘All God asks is that you do your best. Not your worst, but your best.’

“People can say what they want about Him,” she concludes, “but I believe in God truly, for what he’s taken me through.”

While her faith runs deep and is rooted in the Bible, it is obviously strengthened by the community at Little Piney Grove.

“I love the fellowship,” she says. “There are such good people here.”

This is abundantly evident to me throughout my visit, as I’m welcomed as if I’d been a member there my whole life. The feeling is confirmed when a woman invites me to sit next to her and her husband during the ice cream social.

“My husband and I live in Richmond,” she says, “but we drive here every week. Sometimes several times a week. This church feels like home.”

As I drive home, I can’t help thinking about what an eye-opening experience this has been for me. Prior to going, I was preoccupied with the vast differences that I imagined I would encounter: liturgically, theologically and racially.

In the end, however, the fellowship and the rituals of worship—different as they are in style, among various denominations—all seem to boil down to a fundamental belief: that love is the essence of Christianity.

And in the end, those two types of Christians may have more in common than it first appears. Lewis sums this up nicely.

“I think what Jesus embodied,” he says, “was the essence of God, which is love—and a particular kind of love. The Greeks had several words for love. Agape is the one that’s used in the New Testament, and that is a love that sacrifices self for others. Agape love also is not judgmental, in the sense of judging someone and rejecting them. It is discerning in the sense of helping someone who is on a journey to discover what brings them fullness of life.”

Read more about religion in Searching for God in the 7 Cities: MuslimsChristianity, Part 2JudaismBuddhism and Transcending Religion.

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